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No. 1007:
Over Niagara in a Barrel

Today, let us leap into Niagara. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Nineteen people have tried to ride Niagara Falls in a barrel -- or in worse than a barrel. Four died. Six were stopped before they could try it. Nine made the fall and lived to tell of it.


Niagara is split into two falls. On one side of Goat Island is American Falls. It's the shorter of the two by a few feet. But the bottom is lined with rocks. Riding over it in a barrel would not be a crapshoot. It would be straight suicide.

All the daredevils have gone over Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side. It's a bit higher, but it offers the possibility of a survivable landing.

The first person took that plunge in 1901. The Pan-American Exposition was going on in nearby Buffalo. Writer Peter Warwick tells about Annie Edson, an unemployed dance and etiquette teacher from Michigan -- "a 63-year-old widow [claiming] to be 43."

Annie Edson had a 4½-foot barrel made from inch-and-a-half oak. She tested the stunt with a hapless orange kitty. Then she had a set of photos made of herself standing by her barrel.

The photos weren't ready for sale on the scheduled day, so she aborted the mission. Next time, the photos were ready, but the weather was bad and the crowd was small. Finally, October 24th was a good day. People were buying her photos. Edson sealed herself into the barrel and her handlers sent her off down the river.

Here's an old photo of that brave, aging lady, stepping, dazed, onto dry land. "Have I gone over the Falls?" she asked the people around her. Afterward, she tried to sell her pictures and mount a lecture tour. It didn't pan out. She died poor at the age of 83. She was not the kind of hero the public wanted to hear about.

It was ten years after Edson's success that a man named Bobby Leach repeated the trick. Leach did stunts like that for a living. He shot rapids, did daring parachute drops, and -- finally -- died of injuries after he slipped on an orange peel.

The third try at going over the Falls was made by an English barber named Charles Stephens. All they ever found of him were some barrel staves and one tattooed arm.

Today, authorities go to great lengths to stop the barrel riders, the tightrope walkers, and all the rest who crave the exhilaration of cheating death. American fines are $25,000; Canadian fines are $10,000 -- both with likely jail sentences and both applying to helpers as well as to the daredevils themselves.

But after 1901, all the other attempts seem so futile. Can anyone top senior citizen Annie Edson, simply trying to make a buck to sustain herself in old age? For me, all the rest pales beside her terrible, tragicomical, determination.

I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Warwick, P.D., Over the Falls in a Barrel. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Vol. 10, No. 4, Spring 1995, pp. 34-43.